Brighton Fringe 2017
“I want to see it again!”
John Hinton had just finished ‘You’, his song about his daughter Thalia, with his black and white home video of the just-born child on the big screen behind him. It was very moving, and then I heard the piping voice if a little lad sitting behind us, frustrated that it was over.
He wasn’t alone. All through ‘Ensonglopedia of Science’ I’d glanced around at my fellow audience members. The young ones, sitting with their parents, must have been seven to ten in the main – and their faces were … rapt.
Their older family members were, too – tier upon tier of enraptured faces at The Old Courtroom. At one point they watched John Hinton perform a very brief explanation of Relativity – done as Rap. Not just the words, but the movements too. It only lasted a minute or two, but he managed to get across the basic principles of both Special Relativity – “Time is not set in stone”, and General Relativity – “Mass causes space to curve”. All backed up with colourful clock faces and TweedleDum and TweedleDee graphics on the huge screen behind him.
Hinton did this piece as Albert Einstein, putting on a heavy grey moustache and a German accent. I’d seen him do a whole show about Einstein, in this same venue a few years ago, and with that one he did a much more comprehensive explanation of Einstein’s theory (and I think I understood it!). ‘Ensonglopedia’, though, is about science in general – a whole range of topics, performed in song.
Not just in song – but in a wide range of musical genres: from rap to opera. As the show’s programme informed us – ‘You’re about to hear a song about science for each letter of the alphabet. Each song is also a genre of music, or played on an instrument (or in some cases both), starting with the same letter.’ So when we got to ‘R’, we had Relativity, done as Rap. Brilliant – but could he do it for all twenty-six letters of the alphabet?
He could. Hinton started with Atom. He did this one Acapella, and as he explained how the word means ‘indivisible’ we saw the Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus (who came up with the concept) on the screen. But then he talked about the modern discoveries of the atom’s structure – how it’s mostly empty space, with the nucleus like a single bee in St Paul’s cathedral, and how the nucleus itself is composed of smaller elements, all the way down to quarks. A cascade of images backed up the words – bees, cathedrals, schematic layouts of the electrons circling the atom. Busy – and constantly stimulating.
Moving through the alphabet, he showed us the structure of the Cell, to a Calypso melody, leading a Conga line of audience up the central steps. Then later we had Jive, as we encountered dinosaurs in the Jurassic era. Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and the rest. (We didn’t see T Rex ‘cos he didn’t come along until the Cretaceous – though there was a great silhouette of him on the screen). Later still we got up to dance a Quickstep and learn about Quantum Entanglement.
He ended with Zero – done to music from a Zither. Zilch. A great fat nought signifying the final end of the Universe. Or maybe not the end – as his letter ‘B’ he’d given us the Big Bang, the massive explosion that brought the Universe into being. Maybe, he suggested, it will eventually all collapse back to its starting point and the whole process will begin again.
We just don’t know. One of the best features of ‘Ensonglopedia’ was that Hinton could talk of the discoveries still to be made, of science as an ongoing process. When he got to ‘K’ (done as Karaoke, with a kazoo of course) he reminded us that “Knowledge is a slippery fish, a scientist only ever knows – ish”. He wasn’t making scientists out to be some sort of elite ‘priesthood’, either – he made it clear at the start that we are all scientists, even the tiniest children, in that we all examine the world around us and come up with theories and explanations of cause and effect. Which is exactly what professional scientists do, except they do it in laboratories.
Hinton was wearing a laboratory coat to do this show. White, of course, like his trousers, and both glowed blue when he came to ‘U’ – performing on a Ukulele, bathed in UV light from some small ultraviolet tubes at his feet. There was a lot of equipment on stage – a whole range of musical instruments including an electric keyboard, lights on stands to keep Hinton illuminated as he moved around, and a laptop to run the amazing graphics behind him. There were occasional glitches with the computer, and the performer had to kneel down and fiddle with it – but far from being a problem, these just pointed up the uncertainty, the experimental nature, of science. With his white coat it looked like he was a working scientist in a lab.
The nature of UV light led us on to Wavelength. ‘W’. Performed on a Wobble-board – Hinton’s musical talent knows no bounds. ‘Ensonglopedia’ is aimed primarily at younger people (though we adults were gripped as well) and what I found brilliant was John Hinton’s sheer enthusiasm for science, and how he was able to communicate the awe at the scale of the Universe, the wonder at its intricacy, that science can offer – if it’s not made dull and boring. To really show you his range, of science topics as well as music, I’ll run through just a few of his pieces for you.
Wavelength (which we’ve already seen), on Wobble-board. The Olfactory Orifice of the Octopus, as Opera. Neurons – nerve cells passing information along to other neurons, done as a Nursery Rhyme. DNA – the structure of our genetic code, whose occasional errors cause both cancer and the mutations that power evolution, with a backing of Drum ‘n base. Entropy, and Electrons – the orientation spin of electrons in the atom, done as Electro-swing on (of course) an Electric guitar. I’ve already mentioned Relativity, but not that he managed to include E=MC² into the Rap, forming the letters with his fingers as he pounded out the beat. Fusion, the process that powers the Sun, and promises limitless energy in the future, was shown with video of experimental fusion reactors and performed as a Folk Song. UV we know about already, and he also gave us – Life, and how do we define it? This came in the form of Limericks, six short verses on life-forms as diverse as bacteria, oak trees and silicon-based aliens.
Wow! What a selection. What a demonstration of the immense range of science.
I’m doing a John Hinton myself, here, so spell out that short list for yourselves.
Which it was.